Blake LaForce was once quite an inspiration.
Still is, said Mark, his dad, especially when you consider what’s happening again this Saturday.
Back in November of 2007, two months after a football Friday night where he ran for 237 yards and three touchdowns against Tecumseh High School – just another effort in an athletic career at Vandalia Butler that included being the hard-hitting, starting middle linebacker for the Aviators, standing out in wrestling, running track and making a name for himself as one of the state’s top high school powerlifters – Blake sat in his room at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center with his older sister, Lauren.
Just two days earlier had come the thunderbolt diagnosis. He had acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
“She told me about their remarkable conversation,” said Mark, who was a lineman on Wittenberg Tigers’ 1973 national championship team. “Blake said he knew why he had gotten leukemia. He said the Lord had given him a mission. It was so he could make a difference in people’s lives. So he could change people for the better.
“To this day I’m still floored by that. I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? Who says that?’ Especially what 17-year-old kid? How does he have the presence of mind, the maturity and courage to understand that?
“I’m not pounding my chest about my kid, but would I say that? No…I’d be more like, ‘Get me the hell out of here!’”
At 5-foot-11 and a sculpted 205 pounds, Blake was handsome, popular and National Honor Society smart. I remember talking to him three months after his diagnosis. He was going through chemo then and had lost his hair, but not his determination or that humble charm.
We met at a shave-athon held in his honor at the Just For Looks salon in Vandalia. Nearly 100 of his friends, teammates, teachers and coaches showed up that day and got their heads shaved in a show of solidarity with him.
People also got their cheeks swabbed to see if they might be a match for the bone marrow transplant he needed. The money collected that day would go to his medical expenses and a college fund he, hopefully, would get to one day.
“I don’t know how this is going to work out,” he told me in a private moment. “But I trust the Lord and I’m going to give it my best.”
He certainly did that throughout his 20-month battle with ALL, right up to July 3, 2009, the day he died due to unexpected complications.
Through it all, he profoundly impacted his community, his school and his family. People came together like never before at Vandalia Butler.
Although Blake had to bypass his senior season, he wasn’t forgotten and his No. 41 was not issued to anyone else. The number has now been retired, although today every Vandalia football player, pee wee to varsity, wears a black 41 decal on his helmet.
With Blake hospitalized during that 2008 season, the cheerleaders put together a Play For A Cure game when the Aviators hosted Greenville. And after the final gun something remarkable happened.
Players, coaches, cheerleaders and the fans from both teams encircled the field shoulder to shoulder and clasped hands to form a massive prayer circle for Blake.
Meanwhile, he lay in his Cincinnati hospital bed with his dad and Linda, his mom, at his side. Both listened on cell phones as one person at the game after another gave them an account of the heartfelt scene.
“That moment,” Mark said quietly, “is still talked about around here to this day.”
‘Making a difference’
In May of 2008, three months after we spoke at the shave-fest, Blake got his bone marrow transplant and initially did well. But in August he suddenly developed toxoplasmosis, a devastating parasitic infection of the central nervous system that shut down his motor skills so that he could no longer could eat, drink, walk or talk.
He still managed to communicate, Mark said, by blinking his eyes.
During Blake’s ordeal, Mark wrote a daily journal that was posted on the non-profit CaringBridge site which allows families to provide updates to others during a medical crisis. Blake’s story was so compelling that Mark had 120,000 followers from around the world.
When Blake died over 1,000 people showed up for the memorial service at the Christian Life Center on Little York Road., A few days before that, 42 of Blake’s friends had stepped forward at an Open Bible Church in Vandalia and committed themselves to Christ.
In the years since, Mark said he realized “we needed to leverage his legacy and try to keep making a difference.”
The Blake LaForce #41 Memorial Fund — part of the VISIONS Endowment Fund under the umbrella of the Dayton Foundation — was begun and as of today it has provided 16 Vandalia Butler athletes, eight boys and eight girls, with scholarships. It also aids the school’s athletic department to better enrich the experiences of Aviator athletes.
The 11th annual Play For A Cure game will take place, Sept. 7 ,when the Aviators host Wilmington. The game proceeds go to the Memorial Fund, as do the monies raised by the Butler wrestlers each year when they take part in a Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot and also collect monetary pledges in the community for all the pins the team has during the season.
Recently, Mark said, the school superintendent and an assistant coach took part in a corporate fitness challenge and the money they raised went to the fund, as well.
Since 2011, the day before Father’s Day Mark and his family have put on the Blake LaForce Memorial Golf Scramble at Windy Knoll in Springfield.
And then there’s the fifth annual 41 Hope 5K race that will be run Saturday — beginning at 9 a.m. — at Butler’s Memorial Stadium.
To register or find out more on the race, go to the website 41Hope5K.com. Participants can also walk up on race morning, register and take part.
Finding a purpose
Mark, who’s now 66, said his son taught him “how to be a real man.”
He said before that he had lived a good life. He had played on a championship team, married a beautiful woman, they had three kids, John, Lauren and Blake, he had a good job and they had enjoyed watching Blake begin to blossom on the high school football field.
“But what was my purpose in life? My true purpose?” he said. “I didn’t really know, but as he went through his ordeal, Blake helped me realize it. He helped me understand there was more to life.
“Blake was a normal kid in a lot of ways – he wasn’t perfect – but he was a real strong Christian athlete, too. And he was always looking to pay it forward and make a difference in people’s lives.
“After he was gone, I knew my job was to make sure he kept making a difference. His jersey and a picture of him hang up in the SAC (Student Activities Center) at school, so younger kids coming in see them. Maybe they’ve heard about Blake from an older brother or sister or maybe they learned about him now.
“His story has become part of the tradition at the school.
“Sometimes I worry though. With the golf outing in June and the 5K early in September, for a while it’s pretty concentrated with Blake’s name around here and I always wonder: ‘Oh geez, is this too much?’
“But then I think it’s not just about remembering Blake. It’s about making an impact on the community, making an impact with people. It’s about helping kids today. It represents just so many things that are positive.”
Blake LaForce still is an inspiration today.